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Answers About Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis by Emilie Arl

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Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) is a disease that affects the brain and spinal cord that progress over time.  This disease causes motor neurons that gradually break down and die.  Motor neurons are important because they send impulses to the spinal cord which then sends the impulses to the rest of the body to tell it what it should do.  Once the motor neurons die, the brain no longer can control muscle movement.  As the disease progresses, patients can become paralyzed in the later stages.

ALS is also referred to as “Lou Gehrig’s Disease”.  Lou Gehrig was a baseball player for the New York Yankees from 1925-1939.  Gehrig was a phenomenal baseball player, always right behind the famous Bath Ruth in standings.  However, as the years went on, Gehrig’s teammates noticed that Gehrig was beginning to weaken.  Gehrig was later diagnosed with ALS.

Some symptoms of ALS are difficulty walking and doing everyday tasks, weakness in both upper and lower limbs as well as weakness and clumsiness in hands.  Also twitching and difficulty holding your head up can be symptoms of ALS.  The more ALS advances it will begin to affect speech, speaking, breathing, chewing, and eventually swallowing.  However, it thankfully does not affect the ability to think.

ALS is very challenging to diagnose since there is not one specific test or procedure that will tell if a patient has ALS or not.  Through several tests and the ruling out of other diseases comes the diagnosis of ALS.  Some tests that will be performed are electrodiagnostic, a spinal tap, x-rays and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), blood and urine samples, and muscle and nerve biopsies.  Because ALS is so hard to diagnose, often the patient will receive a second opinion from another physician just to make sure that is not another disease that may mimic the signs of ALS.

The causes of ALS are not written in stone.  Researchers believe that 50% of the cases are inherited and 50% are random.  One possible cause is gene mutation.  This means that there are genetic mutations in the genes.  Another possible cause of ALS is a chemical imbalance.  Individuals with ALS commonly have higher than-normal levels of glutamate.  Glutamate is a chemical messenger around nerve cells in the brain.  If there is too much glutamate, it can be toxic to these nerve cells.  More possible causes are disorganized immune response and protein mishandling.

The risk factors of ALS are heredity, age, and sex.  ALS commonly occurs in individuals between the ages of 40 and 60.  Slightly more men develop ALS than women, until the age of 70.  After the age of 70, this sex difference fades.  Also smoking increases an individual’s chances of developing ALS. There is some evidence that suggests that exposure to lead may be linked to the increased risk of ALS.  In recent studies, there has been a link formed between ALS and service in the military.  Although researchers are not sure what exactly links these two yet, it could be linked to exposure to certain chemicals and metals that are used in the military.

There is no treatment for ALS.  Patients can volunteer to test new drugs to help slow down ALS, but there has been no treatment found that reverses ALS.

Those with ALS need to have a strong support system with family and friends.  Often those who are diagnosed with ALS will only have 2-5 years to live.  It is very hard for the patients to cope with the loss of independence.  The patient will no longer be able to do what they once were able to do on their own.  The diagnosis is not a death sentence, life can still be enjoyed.   As long as a positive outlook is kept, the individual can continue to live a happy life.



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